By: Casey Shea

The Olympic hockey tournament has been the highlight of the Games thus far and the best may be yet to come.

Team USA has been very impressive thus far by winning all three preliminary round games. They easily dispatched Slovakia and Slovenia 7-1 and 5-1 respectively. However, the most impressive performance came against Russia.

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Words cannot do that game justice. It had everything you’d want in a hockey game and Hollywood couldn’t have scripted a better ending.

The effects of that game could be long lasting for the Americans. They withstood the offensive firepower of the Russians and beat them in front of a raucous home crowd, which included their president, Vladimir Putin.

The win essentially locked up a bye into the quarterfinals and forced Russia to play an extra game this morning against Norway.

Russia won 4-0 and will now face Finland tomorrow in the quarterfinals.

In most cases, winning your group leads to an easier path to the gold medal game. However, that’s not the case for the Americans.

In fact, they may have the most difficult road to claim gold.

Tomorrow, they will take on a talented Czech Republic team, which struggled in group play. The Czechs went 1-2 in the preliminary round and only scored six goals.

In their quarterfinal matchup with rival Slovakia, they dominated the first half of the game, but let up off the gas late in the second period. Slovakia carried the play for much of the third period and nearly came all the way back from a 4-0 deficit.

The Czech Republic survived just long enough to get an empty net goal to win 5-3 and advance in the tournament.

For Penguins fans, this matchup could be a little worrisome. This may be a little bit of a stretch, but it’s worth noting that Jaromir Jagr has been a part of the Pens’ demise in their last two playoff runs. Now, Dan Bylsma and Team USA are presented with the scenario of facing Jagr in yet another playoff situation.

It’s also worth noting that Jagr has looked very solid in the tournament for the Czechs.

While the Czechs were shutout against Switzerland in their final preliminary round game, Jagr had several golden scoring chances that were either bested by Jonas Hiller or caught iron.

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Should USA win, it sets up a likely meeting with Canada in the semifinals with the winner advancing to the gold medal game.

Again, should USA prevail, they would likely face Russia, Sweden or Finland for the gold. Meanwhile, Sweden is playing Slovenia in the quarterfinals and will get the winner of Russia/Finland in the semifinals should they prevail.

The lone chance I see for a major upset in the quarterfinals could come in the Latvia/Canada matchup.

Latvia has been another welcome surprise in the tournament. They have been in every game and have stared down some of the top teams. They nearly beat the top-seeded Swedes in the preliminary round.

They also found a way to crack Switzerland’s defensive system just enough in today’s qualification round matchup. Latvia jumped out to a 2-0 lead after one period of play and tacked on a late empty net goal to secure a 3-1 victory.

Given how they’ve played to this point, I would expect another competitive game out of them tomorrow against Canada. They may not win, but it won’t be a blowout either.

Anyway, can the Americans win it all? Absolutely. I think they have been the most impressive team in the tournament thus far. They found instant chemistry with the line of James Van Riemsdyk, Joe Pavelski and Phil Kessel. That line has been scary dominant through the first three games.

Heading into the tournament, I felt the Americans’ had the best goaltending of any team hands down and I still do. I also said Jonathan Quick was our best chance to win gold and he’s been a monster in the cage. His performance against Russia was phenomenal and is the reason why he’ll be in net against the Czech Republic tomorrow.

Should he falter, Ryan Miller looked very solid against an upstart Slovenia team that has absolutely no fear. Not to mention, Miller backstopped USA to a silver medal four years ago.

All aspects of their game have come together for USA and it happened quickly. Typically, a team that can put it together quickly tends to do quite well in this tournament.

We’ll see how things play out tomorrow against Jagr and the Czechs, but the Amercians should be considered a gold medal threat more than ever.

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